The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider reinstating key provisions of North Carolina’s 2013 elections law overhaul, which includes a voter ID requirement and other restrictions on voting.
Within hours of the release of the order, N.C. Republican Party leaders were calling for a new law that would incorporate some of the same ideas in a manner that they thought could withstand judicial review.
The Supreme Court ruling gave few details about why the justices left a lower-court decision in place that struck down the restrictions, stating they “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Chief Justice John Roberts outlined the background of the case and noted that the court’s decision not to hear the appeal should not be seen as sending a larger message about the substance of the case.
Never miss a local story.
“Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law, it is important to recall our frequent admonition that ‘[t]he denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case,’ ” the ruling states, noting the legal questions about whether the executive office or legislative branch speaks for the state in lawsuits.
The contested state law called for voters to show specific kinds of photo identification and prohibited voters from registering to vote and casting ballots on the same day. It sought to eliminate out-of-precinct voting as well as preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by Election Day. And it eliminated a week of early voting.
The Republican-controlled legislature passed the changes in 2013 and former Gov. Pat McCrory signed them into law.
The overhaul came as part of a wave of voting restrictions that were adopted shortly after the Supreme Court voided a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 decision that weakened federal oversight of elections changes.
The Obama administration joined the NAACP and others in challenging North Carolina’s law.
Though U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder rejected arguments that the key provisions violated the U.S. Constitution, a three-judge panel at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found otherwise.
In a ruling last summer, the panel blocked the voter ID requirement and other challenged provisions ahead of the November 2016 general election.
The state appealed to the Supreme Court. But after Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, took office in January, they sought to withdraw the state’s appeal. But the justices faced competing procedural arguments from the two Democrats and the Republican leaders of the legislature, raising a question about which branch of government actually represents the state.
The news from the high court was greeted with approval by those who challenged the law.
“This ruling sends a strong message that lawmakers in North Carolina should stop enacting laws that discriminate based on race,” said Allison Riggs, senior staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who argued against the 2013 changes.
NAACP members and others gathered for a news conference in Raleigh about the plans of the Rev. William J. Barber II to step down as the organization’s president, broke into chants of “Forward together, not one step back” as the ruling was announced. Many of the people who rose in standing ovation were part of the Moral Monday movement which protested the election law changes. The NAACP filed the lawsuit along with voters.
“This is a great victory for the N.C. NAACP and the people of North Carolina, vindicating the nearly four-year fight for fair access to the ballot in the state,” said Caitlin Swain, one of the attorneys who represented the challengers. “The 4th Circuit’s powerful determination that the General Assembly acted with racially discriminatory intent remains the law of the land.”
Republican Party leaders and legislators highlighted Roberts’ comment that the court was not ruling on the merits of the case as they talked about trying again to make an ID a requirement to vote.
“Republicans will continue to fight for common sense and constitutional voter ID measures, similar to what many other states already have,” state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said. “While Gov. Cooper and Attorney General Stein have stymied voter ID for now, they will ultimately lose in their efforts to block North Carolina citizens from having these protections.”
In a joint statement posted on N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore’s Facebook page, he and Senate Leader Phil Berger said that “all North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the commonsense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote.”
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said she thought it would be difficult for the General Assembly to come back with an ID law that did not violate the appeals court ruling.
“The opinion talks about how the justifications for [the ID law] is non-existent,” Earls said, highlighting the lack of evidence of in-person voter fraud. “There still does not exist evidence that would justify putting that kind of burden on voters.”
Any such efforts could pit the legislative leaders against the governor in another power struggle.
“We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder – and the Court found this law sought to discriminate against African-American voters with ‘surgical precision,’ ” Cooper said. “I will continue to work to protect the right of every legal, registered North Carolinian to participate in our democratic process.”